Reflections on Discipleship – Horse Whispering

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Do not be like the horse or the mule,     which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle     or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32:9)

Paul’s use of the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘worldly’ in 1 Corinthians 3 allow us to believe that there are two kinds of Christians: those who really have got it, who are sold out on living wholeheartedly for Christ, who have as their highest value being disciples, and those who have not yet reached that stage and are trying to keep one foot in the world, treating their faith as an add-on to their lives and not the be-all-and-end-all. It isn’t a salvation issue, Paul explains in v 15: if you’re a Christian you will be saved, even though for some it will be with the smell of Hell in their nostrils. But it is a commitment issue, a discipleship issue. And whilst of course sanctification, or becoming more like Jesus, is a life-long journey, for many of us there does need to be a second conversion experience where we finally realise that love so amazing, so divine, really does demand my soul, my life, my all.

In my preaching in the past I have often referred to this point as ‘brokenness’. I try to keep as far away from real horses as I possibly can, but from my watching of cowboy films I believed that a wild horse had to be broken, a violent process whereby the master would basically ride the horse into submission, until it would do what he wanted it to. I’ve no idea whether real cowboys do this to real horses, but it looks great on the cinema screen. I know that in my experience I had to reach a point where I stopped trying to live my faith as an add-on and commit myself totally to my Lord. Of course this is a matter of will and choice, with actual behaviour lagging some way behind, but it is, I think, about our basic orientation towards God. It felt a great relief to stop fighting, submit, and dedicate my life wholly to God.

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But talking to a friend about this recently gave me a different outlook, when he asked instead of bucking broncos what was the role of the ‘Horse Whisperer’? Is God really the kind of rider who will sit on us, come what may, until we’re too broken and exhausted to resist any longer? Or does he come alongside us, whisper words of love and woo us until we want nothing more than to obey him in every way? To change the animal, does the ‘Hound of Heaven’ pursue us in the somewhat scary way Francis Thompson’s poem suggests, or does he wait quietly until we come to him?

I guess the answer is ‘both and’. God of course deals with us all as individuals, and some of us will respond better to one approach than to another. But that is secondary: the real point is that as disciples of Jesus Christ we come to that point of surrender, commitment, brokenness, whatever you want to call it. Recently in my diocese we committed ourselves to a year of discipleship using the words of the Methodist Covenant prayer. Powerful words indeed, and not for the faint-hearted or the compromised.

Lord, if you need to fight me, fight. If you need to whisper, then whisper. But whatever it takes, turn my heart and will completely to you.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Job

This week we come to our first book which comes under the category of ‘Wisdom Literature’, although we have already encountered some material which would fit in this genre. Wisdom in the Old Testament has nothing to do with being clever or intelligent: it might best be translated from the French savoir faire, or ‘knowing what to do’. We might also describe a wise person as someone who is ‘streetwise’, who knows the best way to handle any situation. There are three main Wisdom books in the Old Testament, and it is helpful to understand them in terms of building a house. Proverbs, which we’ll come to in a fortnight, is a book of instructions about the best way to build; Job is about what happens when that house gets struck by lightning or some other disaster; Ecclesiastes is about a house which has got old, tired and is falling down. But in addition there are other bits of wisdom literature scattered about the Bible: Many of the Psalms are ‘wisdom’ psalms, and there are some great wisdom stories, like that of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph is the ‘wise’ man who handles everything well, even though little goes right for him at the start, while his brothers play the part of the ‘fools’ who get everything wrong and are duped by him (although being a wise man he makes everything OK in the end).

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So what about poor old Job? The book begins with a string of disasters coming hot on the heels of one another. When he has lost pretty much everything he is met by a bunch of his friends who try to act as philosophers to comfort him by giving explanations as to why he is so deep in the muck. There are clues that the book was put together pretty late in the OT period: for example in 1:4 Job’s sons hold feasts ‘in their homes’: we know that this splitting up of an extended family’s home is a late development. We can also recognise in the words of his friends some current philosophical movements which would have come to the fore as Greek culture began to spread through the Near East. We can trace through the OT a development from, for example, Psalm 1 where the righteous get everything on a plate while the wicked suffer, to a much greater appreciation of the fact that real life is nowhere near as simple as that. It is generally thought that a common folk tale about a man who loses everything and then gets it back was extended with 38 chapters of philosophical and theological debate.

So how are we to read Job? With a damp towel around our heads, for a start. It is a horrific story, and anyone who has known suffering or watched as others have suffered will be able to recognise the agonised soul-searching of the victim. Pastorally it has much to say about our well-meaning but so often misguided attempts to help those going through the mill with platitudes which may be theologically correct but are no help at all. But it has another dimension which is fascinating: The Satan (or ‘The Accuser’) has access to God’s throneroom and is allowed to bring suffering to God’s people. While this exchange sounds, to be honest, a bit petty and nasty on God’s part, the deeper truth is that while Job is going through such agony he is completely unaware that in a parallel universe there are things going on which affect his little life down here. So much of what we don’t understand may well have an extra dimension of which we’re not aware.

But the other truth to shine through these pages is that God is God and ultimately he has the right to do what he likes. So often we hear people telling us that ‘I can’t believe in a God who …’ or ‘I don’t believe in Hell’ or whatever. In the final couple of chapters poor Job gets a right telling off for daring to question God. Who does he think he is? But at the end of the day he does question, and in doing so gives permission for all who suffer unjustly not just to submit quietly to it. Of course Job ends up with no answers, but it’s good that he has asked the questions.

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 1st Candlemas Malachi 3:1-5

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

I’ve gone for the Candlemas theme for this week, on the assumption that it is likely to be celebrated a day early in many churches, and also because it is an occasion I enjoy. The familiar words of Malachi, mediated via the gift of Handel’s Messiah, raise an interesting question for us.

This week I have been involved in a long facebook conversation which came out of a friend’s blog. Somehow we got onto the subject of ‘niceness’. We started off on why men hate going to church, but we soon arrived at the suggestion that church was too ‘nice’ for most blokes. I put the word safely inside inverted commas so you’ll know what I mean, but it was suggested that being nice is fine: kindness, gentleness and so on are good Christian qualities. But to me the problem is when we’re only ever allowed to be ‘nice’; when the harsher realities of life, and church life, are brushed under the carpet because they’re not ‘nice’. Stuff like conflict, reality, death – you know the kinds of thing.

Candlemas is basically a nice festival. You’ve got some all-age worship as an elderly pair of people encounter a little baby, you’ve got the beautiful words of what the Church has called the  

Nunc dimittis, and some lovely prophecies about Jesus’ life and ministry. But the OT reading, and indeed even some of the Gospel story, give us a different picture. This sweet baby comes bringing judgement. Many are going to fall because of him, Mary herself will know the pain of a pierced heart, and her son will naturally enough stir up great hostility. The truth is, he is not being born into a ‘nice’ system. Malachi, writing after the completion of the rebuilding of the Temple, is telling people not to get too up themselves just because a building project is complete. If the God in whose honour this building was raised were actually to come among the people some things would be anything but ‘nice’. The images of launderers’ soap and refiners’ fire are violent images, and the testifying against various categories of naughty people sounds scary for those people. They must surely reflect some of what was currently going on, and the images of  occultism, adultery, lying, injustice and oppression are not a pretty sight. In the same way Jesus’ ministry was going to be one of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable, as many of those around the Temple were to find out. Following him was no easy option, and he never told anyone it would be.

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On a larger scale Candlemas is about a change of direction: we face away from Christmas, and all the lovely birth narrative stuff with its shepherds, little lambs and the like, and turn towards Lent and Passiontide; away from birth towards death. This too is a turn away from ‘niceness’ in the direction of something far less comfortable and far more demanding.

To follow Jesus is to be challenged, judged and purified until the offering of our lives are ‘offerings in righteousness’ (v 3) Purification is not ‘nice’, but it is essential, and the end results are much nicer without the inverted commas.

Reflections on Discipleship – The Number Zero

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Well, we’re off! Last Sunday, on Jan 18th, we launched the Year of Discipleship in our diocese. Where I was we reflected on the story of the 12 spies casing the Promised Land, mixed our metaphors by talking about ‘Tiggers’ and ‘Eeyores’, and decided whether we were more keen to get our hands on the grapes (the good things promised to us by God) than we were scared of the giants (the things which might stand in our way). We prayed a liturgy of rededication at the start of the year, and ate grapes, praying that God would keep our eyes fixed on the grapes rather than on the giants.

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That evening I started re-reading Vincent Donovan’s classic Christianity Rediscovered[1] which I have been meaning to do for ages. It’s the story of a Roman Catholic Mission to the Masai in East Africa in the mid-60s, and it must be 30 years since I last read it. I was struck like a sledgehammer blow at a passage in which Donovan writes to his Bishop. He reports that after his few months at the Mission, which has been around for seven years, there are thriving schools, an active hospital, with an ambulance service to bring sick people to it, financial aid for those in need, and compulsory religious instruction for children in the schools. Relationships with the Masai people are cordial. Sounds great!

But then his letter goes on:

‘Almost never is religion mentioned … The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero … There are no adult Masai practicing Christians … no child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so. The relationship with the Masai, in my opinion, is dismal, time-consuming, wearying, expensive and materialistic. There is no probability that one can speak with the Masai, even with those who are our friends, about God … In other words, the relationship with the Masai … goes into every area except that very one area which is most dear to the heart of the missionary …  I suddenly feel the urgent need to … go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa … and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message.[2]

This he did. His first conversation with a local chief was greeted with the puzzled response

‘If that is why you came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’

a comment which he was to hear again and again. Needless to say, his new-style mission met with phenomenal results and growth in discipleship.

I had a flashback to a conversation  in the past with a rural priest who told me that ‘Of course, we’re not here to evangelise the village!’, a comment greeted by nods of agreement from his congregation.

I don’t know how you react to this story, but I wonder whether for some of us it might be the time to start of a new kind of church, which is proud and confident to talk about its Lord. If Donovan’s experience rings true, it is worth asking the question ‘What is stopping me, and my church, from simply talking about Jesus?’ Many of us, of course are already doing this, but my suspicion is that some aren’t. Maybe it’s time to begin.

[1] (London: SCM, 1978)

[2] p 15

For our Diocesan Year of Discipleship blog, click here.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Esther

The book of Esther has three claims to fame: it contains the longest verse in the Bible (8:9), it is never referred to elsewhere in Scripture, and it never once mentions God. So what is it doing here?

If we mean by that question ‘what is it doing here’, the answer is that it tells the story of Esther, who became a Persian queen around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, so as we found with the book of Ruth, this seemed like the most sensible slot for it in the Bible. But at another level it is in the Bible at all because it is an aetiology, that is a story told to explain a present reality. Kipling’s Just So Stories are examples of aetiologies – we see that elephants have long trunks, so here’s why. In this case the reality was that Jews saw that they kept an annual festival called Purim, and wanted to know why, and how the tradition got started, so the story of Esther was told in order to provide that background. And it’s a bit more historical than Kipling’s tales: the author is at pains to assure us of its historicity, and to date it for us (1:1, 2:23, 9:32).

The story goes like this: King Xerxes has had a few pints too many during a 180 day bender, and commands his beautiful wife Vashti to show herself off before his nobles, wearing her royal crown: probably only her royal crown. She refuses, is banished from his presence, and needs replacing, so a search is made and a beautiful Jewess wins the privilege of becoming queen. In spite of the strong tradition that intermarriage is not allowed, she has no choice, and is told not to let the king know of her nationality. Later her cousin Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king, which Esther reports to him, saving his life.

Haman is an official in the court who is raised to high position, but Mordecai refuses to pay him the honour he expects. Haman decided that in retaliation he would try to wipe out all the Jews, and not just Mordecai. Risking her life Esther approaches the king to plead for her people. Usually she would not venture into his presence from the harem unless called for, but she takes the risky initiative and invites the king to a banquet. Meanwhile the king can’t sleep and tries to drop off by reading the court records, obviously the Persian equivalent of counting sheep. He discovers that Mordecai previously saved his life, but has not been rewarded. Haman becomes even more jealous.

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Finally Esther gets to present her petition, for the protection of the Jews, to the king, and tells him of the plot to wipe them out. The king is shocked and asks who could think of such a thing. Haman is identified, and ends up being impaled on a spike he had prepared specially for Mordecai. The king pronounces an edict of protection for the Jews, and amidst great celebrations other enemies are finished off and the feast of Purim is established as a remembrance of the Jews’ deliverance from their enemies. Purim were apparently stones with numbers on, rather like dice, which were used to choose dates at ‘random’.

So what do we do with this entertaining story today? It is about trusting (usually with hindsight) that God has put us in the right place at the right time. It is about risky living for righteousness and justice, and it about thankfulness and celebration, or ‘counting our blessings’ for God’s hand on our lives in the past. In a time when in some parts of the world Christians are being systematically executed in the hope of total eradication, it is a call to prayer and intercession for God’s people, and for the confusion of all those who wish them harm.

Old Testament Lectionary Jan 25th Conversion of St Paul Jeremiah 1:4-10

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of my quibbles with small-c catholic spirituality, with its emphasis on the ‘Saints’, is that for ordinary Christians like you and me it can seem very de-skilling. Often based on a mediaeval and unbiblical distinction between ‘saints’ and ‘souls’, the language is usually that of emulating and being inspired by the great heroes of faith. But the reality is that actually I have never had a baby through virgin birth, I’ve not done much at all in terms of miracles, and I hope to goodness that I never get martyred. So I’m just an ordinary Christian, as opposed to the saintly super-heroes of the faith. I know my place.

However other bits of the church can be just as guilty, even when their heroes and heroines are found within the pages of Scripture. The calls of both Jeremiah and Paul are often preached as ‘types’ of calling for all Christians. Fortunately we have moved away from believing that if you couldn’t time and date your conversion experience you probably haven’t had a genuine one (although some people still can, and they need to be recognised as valid too). Jeremiah’s call is often held up as a good paradigm for present-day Christians, although the experience of most of us is a lot less dramatic. Nevertheless, there are some elements of this call to which we maybe do need to listen carefully.

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First of all we note that looking at these two stories together, conversion equals call. In both cases the call of God is a call to action. Jeremiah’s is specific, Paul is merely told to go to Damascus where he will receive further instructions, but both incidents imply a call to ministry. Too often today we concentrate on conversion as encountering Christ, and surrendering to him for the first time, as stage one, and we may or may not get round to stage two, our call to serve Christ, at some later point. Leave it too long, and we have actually allowed new converts to relax into ‘passenger’ rather than ‘crew’ mode, and it will be all the more difficult to recruit them into action.

Secondly, we see in many biblical call narratives (although not, interestingly, in Paul’s story) the motif of reluctance. This lack in Acts 9 may be the result of God having had, as it were, to hit Paul so hard that he was too stunned to object. But when we sense some kind of a call from God, there are two things to learn: a) if we feel nervous we are in good company, and b) our reluctance cuts no ice at all with God, so get over it!

Thirdly, I am interested, because of my particular personality type, in the negativity of Jeremiah’s calling. There are four negative tasks for him (uproot, tear down, destroy, overthrow) and only half as many positive ones (build, plant). Again, in Acts we do not get details of Paul’s specific calling, other than to stop destroying and overthrowing, but as we see his career panning out there is a certain amount of confrontation and resistance to the old ways of Judaism in which he was schooled and zealous. But I wonder how much of the uprooting and tearing down had to happen within himself, as the encounter with the living Christ turned his life, and his beliefs upside down.

Calling people to turn to Christ, which is surely the most important ministry the Church has, must, I believe, involve a good, clear account of just what it is we are calling them from, and what we are calling them to.

Reflections on Discipleship – A Sense of Perspective

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

One of the most helpful things I’ve read on discipleship is Rick ‘Purpose Driven’ Warren’s attempt to define it and to chart how it might grow in us. He begins with growth in knowledge – how much we know of what the Bible teaches, what the Church believes, how we are supposed to live, and so on. But, he says, this is merely the first step. Just because we know stuff doesn’t mean we’re living as disciples. So what we need next is what he calls ‘Perspective’, or learning to see things as God sees them, rather than in a merely human way. This is best seen in the gospel stories when Peter, with well-meaning human concern for his friend, tries to tell Jesus that he needn’t go to the cross. He is roundly rebuked, because ‘you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ (Mt 16:23) His perspective, while understandable, is completely wrong.

1 Corinthians 1 and 2 provide an extended exploration of this concept of ‘perspective’. The passage is all about the contrast between worldly thinking and the gospel. The message of the cross is ‘foolishness’ in merely human eyes, but is the power of God to those who have believed it (1:18). The wisdom and philosophy of the ‘world’ is contrasted with the apparent ‘foolishness’ of the preaching to which Christians have responded (1:19-21). Indeed our teaching is a ‘stumbling block’ (a ‘scandal’ in the Greek – 1:22-24). That’s why it is important that the preaching of the gospel doesn’t try to persuade people with worldly ‘wisdom’ and rhetoric, but is demonstrated by the power of the Holy Spirit (2:1-5). Indeed it is only through the Spirit that we are taught, and only through the Spirit that we can grasp the message of the gospel (2:10-13). Those who think merely from a human point of view simply don’t get it.

Disciples, therefore, might be defined as those seeking more and more to see things from God’s point of view. 2:15-16 tells us that

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments,  for,

‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’

 

and then adds:

But we have the mind of Christ.

We have the mind of Christ, but we still need to learn to think with it. So my task, as a Christian disciple, is constantly to be asking ‘What does God think about this?’ What would Jesus do in a situation like this? As a Christian what do I think about ISIS, or Charlie Hebdo? How am I going to vote at the next General Election? How am I feeling at the prospect of another ‘Black Friday’ next November? There is no shortage of information from those ‘without the Spirit’ (2:14) telling me how I ought to be thinking, but what is the mind of Christ on these matters?

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The corollary of this, of course, which Paul spells out only too clearly, is that to be a disciple will bring us into conflict, because we see things differently, we ‘get’ stuff which those without faith, or with faith but without perspective, simply don’t. We have received the Spirit so that we may understand what God has freely given us (2:12). Thanks be to God for his indescribable, if somewhat dangerous, gift!